Thursday, November 11, 2010

[Review] 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' by H.P. Lovecraft [Part 2]

Title: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
Author: H.P. Lovecraft
Genres: Horror
Softcover: 128 pages
Publisher: originally by Weird Tales in 1941; my translation is from 2007 by Publishing Group Bulgaria
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Copy: Bought it myself

Blurb: Incantations of black magic unearthed unspeakable horrors in a quiet town near Providence, Rhode Island. Evil spirits are being resurrected from beyond the grave, a supernatural force so twisted that it kills without offering the mercy of death!

Available from: Amazon - US - UK | B&N | BookDepository

Cover Comment: I’m showing the cover of the most recent re-release of The Case of Dexter Ward [2008], which certainly is superior to its Bulgarian counterpart. Despite the easy to look at color combination, the cover doesn’t fail at its task to announce that the novel is horror and that it promises to be creepy. Also, I believe this cover art to be brilliant, because it is public friendly. If by any chance you read this in the park [in the bus/train] people won’t raise their eyebrows in disgust had this cover been with skulls or dead people. Everyone is happy.

Review: In the first part of my review [HERE] I discussed the first two chapters and touched upon the physical qualities of the text, the narration and the worldbuilding. Now, I’ll focus more on the plot, characterization and then speak about the themes.

Lovecraft considerately stalls the story with build-up and exposition. The first two chapters serve as blueprints for Ward and Curwen as characters. Chapter three continues in the same manner and maps out Ward’s transformations. But this process remains far from clear and reveals nothing to the reader. Supposedly, Ward experiments with far from normal materials and succeeds. At this point my patience stretched to the point I was not sure whether I could continue reading the novel as nothing really was said up straight. What are the purposes of the experiments? What triggered the changes in Ward? Why were bodies missing from the local graveyard? What was that smell in the library?

Thankfully, chapters four and five stopped with the irking foreshadowing and hinting and did their best to get to the heart of the mystery that Charles Dexter Ward had become. Lovecraft still manages to forbid the reader a full-frontal exposure by switching POVs between Charles, the family doctor, Mr. Willett and Charles’ father. In these chapters the Ward family becomes progressively worried about Charles’ health, so they begin an investigation of their own [but I have to say that the mother figure is passive and suffers from nerves throughout the book]. It’s discovered that Charles’ research lab, built in a bungalow as far away as possible from the family home, is inconspicuous, but the true horror is underneath the bungalow in a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers with alters inside.

SPOILER ALERT: Dr. Willett discovers that Charles performs rituals to raise spirits and gain knowledge. This process is coordinated with other necromancers all around the world, which have managed to cheat death once. At this point I stopped complaining about the book being a bit too mysterious for its own good and drooled as revelation after revelation happened on the page. While I’m in the spoiler section, I’ll mention how Lovecraft delivers a mighty twist I didn’t see coming. Turns out that the mysterious Dr. Allen, with whom Charles worked in the bungalow laboratory, was actually a resurrected Curwen. It was Curwen who killed Ward and then assumed his identity. By now this sounds a bit like a session of playing “Clue” with your friends and in retrospect, I should have seen this coming. For starters, Lovecraft underlines how much Charles resembles Curwen and Curwen’s portrait has been given a sort of sentient presence; much like in Dorian Gray. Ward’s contradictory behavior at the time of his death and the library as the place of murder [I mentioned the smell, now didn’t I?] function as small details that add flavor to the story, but de facto act as clues. < END SPOILER|

I won’t discuss the ending, for it is quite satisfying and has to be read. Willett’s confrontation with Ward in the asylum, which leads to the mystery depicted in the first chapter, is brilliant as a resolution. I will however stop to comment on Lovecraft’s rationalization of the fear of the unknown. Lovecraft suggests that we as a species demand for everything to have a logical explanation and that humankind has an image of how the world works. Now what can strike more fear in the hearts of men [once again I do refer to the male gender, because there were no female characters] than coming up against a process or an event, which we cannot fit in the model we have created for the world. It is through knowing this fear that Lovecraft manages to incorporate the supernatural into his tale.

In The Case of Dexter Ward the characters that represent intelligence and knowledge [despite shown as a formless mass] the psychiatrists fear expanding their horizons and are depicted as conservative. They represent how comfortable humans can be with their definition of reality and the world. Keeping in mind that there might be something else they can’t explain or even fathom is ridiculous for them. They fear that unknown, because they are powerless without answers. On the contrary, Dr. Willett faces that fear and overcomes it, because he keeps an open mind and works with what he has despite the impossibility of the situations he finds himself in.

Despite being a horror story about necromancers, mutated creatures and summoning rituals, The Case of Dexter Ward is at its heart a cautionary tale about knowledge. The necromancers’ goal is to achieve dominance through vast and unending knowledge. The narcotic dependency on knowledge, the constant thirst for it and the immoral methods for acquiring it are results of our need to explain things. I think Lovecraft’s message is that some things are better off left unknown as opposed to prodded lest they bite back.

What the Library Says: The library is pleased. The library senses a new re-print soon enough. The library is certain the novel will have an excellent shelf life.

Reviews I’ve seen: [so far none. If you are a book blogger and have a review of this book, tell me and I will link it for you]


Unknown said...

It seems like an interesting book to read.

My blog bookcreak

Mieneke van der Salm said...

Great review! I need to read more classic stuff like Lovecraft!

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